Once one of the country’s biggest fishing ports, Milford Haven has become a major oil port in the last 55 years since the first refinery was built on the northern shore of the waterway.
And it is not the first time that this natural harbour, which Nelson proclaimed the best in the world except Trincomalee, has handled cargoes of oil, although a different kind of oil, since the modern town was built as a Whaling port at the end of the 18th century.
It was Sir Willam Hamilton, husband of Emma the inamorata of Lord Nelson, who founded the whaling port when he decided to invite a community of Quaker whalers from Nantucket to settle there in 1793. Four years later he also suggested to the Navy Board that they create a dockyard for building warships there. The land belonged to his first wife Catherine Barlow of Slebech, who at the time was living in London, having married him in 1758.
The fishing industry at that time was based in the little village of Hakin, now absorbed by the town, and the grand plan was to build on farm land occupied only at that time by the medieval chapel of St Thomas a Beckett and a farm called Summer Hill. Hamilton designated his nephew Charles Francis Greville as his agent and the new town was designed on the American grid-iron pattern, with wide streets and back lanes. The incoming Quakers built their own Meeting House in Priory Road and Greville built a church, St Katharine’s, at the head of the wide seafront avenue called Hamilton Terrace. The Naval Dockyard was built and launched no fewer than seven royal warships and progress on the town was rapid, Lord Nelson visiting it in 1802 to inspect it in person as part of his tour to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile. Nelson described the harbour as one of the two best in the world, the other being Trincomalee in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The Royal Dockyard was transferred to Pembroke Dock in 1814. An observatory to serve as a school of navigation was built at Hakin, but, although it was equipped, it was never really used,.
In its early years the Haven was used as a sheltering place by the Vikings on their journeys to and from Ireland, and Hubba the Viking chief wintered in the Haven with 23 ships in 854, his name being perpetuated in that of Hubberston.
The fishing industry developed and flourished after the docks were built and during World War Two the waterway played a pivotal strategic role in the Battle of the Atlantic. By the 1950s the fishing industry was in decline and Milford Haven gradually slipped off its pedestal as the sixth largest fishing port in the UK and one of the major Hake providers.
However, its economy was saved by what has been dubbed The Second Oil Age, when refining comanies turned their attention to the harbour that Nelson so admired. Esso, BP, Gulf and Regent arrived and later Amoco, and a giant oil-fired power station was built near Pembroke. Now Liquid Natural Gas companies have established terminals on the southern shore, giving another boost to the local economy.